Posts Tagged ‘Lent’

Lent is not a season in which we “identify” with Jesus

February 11, 2016

I grew up Baptist, a tradition that spurned Lenten observance as a vain, extra-biblical form of works righteousness. From what I understand, many Baptists are now getting in on the act (which is weird to me). I guess I still have a lot of old Baptist in me, because I’m not sold on abstaining from or “giving up” something for Lent.

I’m not against these practices; I’m only encouraging us to think through why we do them. Ask yourself: “What do I think I’m accomplishing?” Because the moment we think we’re accomplishing something by giving up chocolate or Facebook, or even genuinely fasting (from food), is the moment we’re undone by our pride. Or at least I am.

I think it’s better during Lent to focus instead on what we can’t do—on what we couldn’t do—on what only Jesus could do for us. Maybe Sarah Condon, in this post, agrees with me?

People often talk of Lent as a journey, a pilgrimage, a sort of celestial road trip. We come by this assessment honestly. There are 40 days of Lent because Jesus spent 40 days in the desert. And so, the thinking goes, we must be on our own sort of ascetic journey, filled with self-denial and hard earned betterment. So we have Lenten lunches of soup and bread. We give up the modern trinity: chocolate, chardonnay, and Facebook. And then we blog about it.

Hear me clearly. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give up social media or vodka. I’m just suggesting you should go ahead and quit tomorrow in lieu of telling yourself that a Housewives of Atlanta moratorium is Lent-worthy. Because it is not. What Jesus did in the desert and what we attempt to do at Lent are almost wholly unrelated.

I would argue that Lent is not about us giving something up. In fact, it is not about our actions at all. Lent is a moment when we watch Jesus from afar. We are on the other side of the desert, watching him deny himself, bearing witness to his teachings and miracles, observing the disciples failing to stay awake, knowing that the agony of the cross is close at hand. Lent is not sad because we can’t eat carbs. Lent is sad because we are forced to watch the slow, deliberate movement of our Savior from his ministry to his cross. And it reminds us of our sin and our powerlessness over it.

We were not in the desert for 40 days fending off the devil and all manner of temptation. Jesus was. For us. Because we are sinners. And as such, we would have taken all the devil offered.

For what it’s worth, I’m very much sold on praying and reading the Bible more during Lent. Speaking of which, I like this recent tweet from fellow United Methodist pastor Talbot Davis:


The Grinch who stole Lent

March 4, 2014

Just in time for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent, Christianity Today editor Mark Galli reminds us what a lousy program for self-improvement Lent really is.

I know, I know… We’re not exactly “giving up something” or fasting in order to improve ourselves: whatever the reason we practice more intense forms of self-discipline during Lent, it’s supposed to have something to do with God, not us. But, good heavens, suppose we do fast one day a week during Lent, or give up chocolate or beer, shouldn’t there be some payoff on the bathroom scale?

As Galli well knows, it’s hard to avoid these sorts of “what’s-in-it-for-me” thoughts during Lent. Besides, there must be some payoff, right?

Maybe not. Galli would say that I tell myself (and my congregation) “white lies” when I extol a couple of so-called “benefits” of Lenten discipline.

As we discipline ourselves in small things (eating sweets), it will inevitably help us discipline ourselves in large things (like being generous to the poor). We get this from Jesus, of course (Luke 16:10), but it’s theinevitably that’s the problem. You see, when picking the small thing for self-discipline, we sometimes fail to recognize that it’s not all that small. We pick it because it plagues us, and has plagued us for years. This means it’s likely to continue to plague us for years to come. And so instead of helping us to move on to loving others, our life energy is spent trying to not eat little pieces of candy.

Fasting doesn’t even necessarily lead us into deeper prayer, which is the big twofer of fasting for some people: We discipline the body while immersing ourselves in prayer. But when I fast, prayer is the last thing I feel like doing. I’m tired, weak, and thinking about food the whole time I’m praying.

So, instead of the small thing helping me become faithful in the big thing, it just makes me focus more and more on the small thing. Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways. I believe, but O Lord, help the enormity of my unbelief.

Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways.

That’s pretty much my experience—except when I accomplish a fast I feel really good… as in proud of myself. And that brings me back to Galli’s point: I’m reminded how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways.

I’ve read Richard Foster on the subject of fasting, in his excellent book Celebration of Discipline, and Foster would nod sympathetically at Galli’s words. He writes about all our temptations to make fasting (which would also apply to its less severe form, “giving something up”) about us. He warns us that it’s not about self-help. He says we don’t even fast in order for God to bestow some blessing on us. He would probably also say that it’s helpful for us to be reminded how little we love God, etc.

But I’ve never heard Foster say anything like what Galli says here:

Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march…

So I end this little essay by grabbing two more pieces of candy, for Ash Wednesday comes tomorrow! It will be time to give myself again to disciplines great and small. I do that partly because, in the end, it is probably better to be a little more disciplined or loving and self-righteous than undisciplined, unloving, and merely lazy. And who knows, by God’s grace, I may lose track of what my left hand is doing!

But I do it mostly to prove once again the impossibility of living up to God and the gracious necessity of being down to earth, of remembering that I am dust and weak and desperately in need of a Savior.

And recalling that I have one.

We observe Lent, including Lenten practices of fasting or giving something up, in order to remind us how sinful we are and desperately we need a Savior.


Ash Wednesday: between play-acting and being

February 22, 2012

You non-Methodists out there probably know that we Wesleyan Christians are about as middle-of-the-road—doctrinally and temperamentally—as a group of Christians can be. We don’t stick out in the ecumenical crowd. We blend in. The most theologically eccentric doctrine that we share is the belief that by the power of the Holy Spirit it is possible, if extremely unlikely, for us to be “perfected in love” in this lifetime. This is another way of saying that we can become “entirely sanctified.”

Even a couple of years ago, when I was ordained, I stood before the bishop and said that I “expected to be perfected in this lifetime.”

I hope I wasn’t lying. But it’s something to aim for, right? It’s better to aim for perfection and miss, because at least you’d be closer to the target than if you aimed for something closer to average.

Regardless, this is a hard doctrine. But you know what’s even harder for me right now? That the United Methodist Church settles for ordaining ministers who are so far from perfect—like me, for instance.

I’m half-kidding. But this blog post is about the half of me that isn’t kidding. As I’ve been grieving the loss of my mom this past week, I’m reminded of an experience many years ago at the church I pastored while I was in seminary. I received a phone message one night from a parishioner whose wife’s grandmother died. He asked if I would “remember her in [my] prayers.”

O.K., pastors… be honest. You know how prayers can sometimes fall between the cracks, right? I was preoccupied at the time with papers and books and exams, and ugh… I dropped the ball. When I got the message, I should have let my life be interrupted for a moment in order to call this woman who was hurting. Instead, a couple of days passed before I finally called her.

By then, the damage was done. She was angry and hurt that her pastor didn’t care enough to reach out to her in her time of need. I felt defensive. I offered excuses. She told me she was leaving the church. While I’m not a fan of parishioners leaving churches—churches ought to be so much bigger than their pastors—I now appreciate more fully where she was coming from.

After all, even in that situation, I was less concerned about her pain and more about her perception of me as pastor.

Can you believe it? What threshold of personal tragedy would she have had to cross for me to set aside whatever I was doing and reach out to her in love? Would she have had to lose a parent, a spouse, a child? God forbid!

I realize that the vast majority of us Christians are on a spectrum between play-acting and becoming what God wants us to be. We fake it ’til we make it. But I’m tired of faking. I want to repent of faking. I want to repent of worrying about being perceived as compassionate and actually being a compassionate person.

How do I do that?

This question is a pretty good prayer for the Lenten season, which begins today.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.

April 10, 2011

Here I am at a 5K last June—very calm, I'm sure! I run barefoot. And, no, it's not because I can't afford shoes.

We just got through a stunningly gorgeous spring weekend in Atlanta, which included a trip on Saturday to the Big Creek Greenway. The greenway is a 7-mile trail—paved or with boardwalk—that follows the eponymous Big Creek through Forsyth County. (There’s a similar greenway in nearby Alpharetta and Roswell.) I run, Lisa walks, and my three kids ride their bikes. We’ve done this together as a family for the past few weekends.

A couple of weeks ago, we purchased a new bike for my daughter, Elisa, who outgrew her previous one. She and my son Townshend rode alongside or near me the whole way. At one point, when the two kids were a short distance ahead of me, a pedal on Elisa’s bike fell off. She and Townshend were trying unsuccessfully to repair it when I came upon them. I stopped, turned off my iPod, and helped them put it back on.

I didn’t think it was any big deal, of course. But while I was helping them, Elisa said, “Dad, you’re being unusually patient.” Townshend said, matter-of-factly, “Elisa, he’s always calm when he’s running.” He paused. “And when he’s drinking coffee.”

There’s a message here: Am I frequently un-calm and impatient, even around my kids? Ugh!

In my sermon today, I spoke briefly about my Lenten practice of fasting once a week. I skip breakfast and lunch one day a week and drink only water until evening. The hardest part of fasting for me is not having coffee first thing in the morning—or at mid-morning, noontime, and early afternoon, etc. You get the point. I said:

If, on those days in which I’m fasting, I’m a little more short-tempered or a little more irritable or a little grumpier, it’s not really because I didn’t have food or coffee. It’s because food and coffee usually mask some bad stuff in my heart that is now coming to the surface—stuff that I need to deal with.

More than anything during this season of Lent, I’m trying to deal with these things. Maybe I’ll reach a point at which my kids won’t find my patience so unusual!